Monday, March 7, 2016

Writing Advice Examined: Books aren't written - they're rewritten.


by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.


I imagine most of us have had Michael Crichton quoted to us during a writing class or a time of frustration with a manuscript: "Books aren't written—they're rewritten." (Though I've often heardand probably even misquoted myselfit said as "Good books aren't writtenthey're rewritten.")

This is one of those rare pieces of often repeated writing advice that I think is completely true. Even if the original quote doesn't have the word "good" in there, I think it's implied in the statement that we're talking about books worth reading.



So what does it mean for you and me that we don't write [good] books, we rewrite them? Here's what I've realized it means for me:

1. It isn't worth my time to painstakingly plan my novel.

I often think through plot points before I start a book. (I've talked about how I plot here.) For some writers, very intense plotting appears to work. For me, I've learned that when I'm trying to plot out every detail it's because I'm trying to remove the messy part of the creative process. But creating is inherently messy (more on that in point three) and I can't plan my way out of that.

2. It's pointless to try and make my first draft read like a great book.

This is also known as the concept of writing a bad first draft. This is a technique I embraced about ten years ago, and I never looked back. I talk about it in detail here. This has worked great for me, but it doesn't work for every writer. My friend, author Roseanna White, wrote a wonderful guest post for us on editing as you write.

3. It means the creative process is a messy beast.

Recently, I've felt discouraged over the way I write books. Writing bad first drafts is still what best helps me to produce books. But as I've taken on more ambitious projects, I've notice that those first drafts seem, well, badder.

I write my first draft. I give it six weeks to rest. Then I reread my book, and I see a lot of things that need to change. Like, a lot. And I rewrite about 50 to 75 percent of it.

I'm a person who loves efficiency. Having to rewrite that much does not feel efficient.

I've tried plotting more before I write the first draft, and that doesn't seem to do me any good. I still end up stumbling along the way and discovering problems that I hadn't anticipated. No matter how much I plan ahead, I cannot seem to avoid having to basically rewrite the majority of my book.

I'm currently reading Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, one of the co-founders of Pixar. I've been comforted by all the stories in there about how their movies evolve along the process. That Monsters, Inc. started out as being about a man who didn't like his day job, and Up was originally about two princes living in a castle up in the clouds. Aren't we glad they reworked those stories to make them great?

As wonderful as it would be for my first draft to be amazing, that's not the nature of them. Creating and discovering a story is a messy endeavor, and if my desire is to write a great story, then I have to embrace the hard work of editing.

4. It means writing a book and editing a book are two different things.

I know a lot of young writers struggle with editing. I sure did. Editing is a different skill than writing, so if until now you've spent a lot of your time learning how to write an entire book (which by itself is hard to do) then you can't expect to automatically be good at editing.

You'll have to learn how to edit the same way you learned how to writepractice. The first time you undertake editing a book, you won't be very efficient. It might take you a long time and it will feel messy. If you keep at it, you will learn and grow and get better, the same as you do with any skill.

What's some of the writing advice you've heard most often? What advice has been most helpful to you?


42 comments:

  1. I've heard this advice before and, while I agree with most of your points, the second point just doesn't jive with me. I have to go back and edit sometimes to keep myself sane (and also to keep the book on-plot). Of course, that's just my writing style. Everyone's different, so I'm sure it works for others. :)

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    1. Which is why I'm so glad that Roseanna wrote that article for the site about editing as you go, because I certainly can't!

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  2. I LOVE this quote! I've heard it before, but this post was a good reminder for me to relax during the writing of my first draft...I'm totally going back and forth between "this is so great!" and "this totally stinks!" So, Stephanie, thank you for saving my sanity today...I've just got to remind myself that this is a first draft and it's SUPPOSED TO be bad!
    Also, and this is somewhat off topic, but do you know how I could find a critique partner?? I've researched writers groups in my area but the only writers meeting I could find felt more like an outpatient clinic for those suffering from chronic Writers Block. I'm eager to connect with another contemporary YA writer and get some feedback (and also help them out). I'm sort of an anomaly...I ADORE editing...and criticism...

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    1. Yes, Taylor! You have permission from many, many, many great writers to write a bad first draft!

      Are you a part of the Go Teen Writers Community on Facebook? It's a great community that we started and is moderated by three fabulous young writers. You can request to join here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/goteenwriters/?fref=nf and make sure to email them at goteenwriterscommunity(at)gmail.com so they know it's cool to let you in. We have to work hard to keep the group healthy!

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  3. I'm just now starting the editing process for the first time. This is great advice!
    Thanks :)

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    1. Good, Sarah Catherine! I hope it goes well! We have lots of resources here if you need them.

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    2. I will definitely be taking advantage of them.

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  4. Thank you so much for this post, Mrs Morrill... I'm currently working on my second draft, and have found myself practically re-writing the entire story, so this was very encouraging to read! Thanks for the lovely post--makes my day! :)

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    1. I'm so glad, Charlotte! The rewrites can feel so discouraging. I keep thinking, "How many books have I written, and I STILL have to rewrite this much of my first draft?" I'm still working to accept that this is part of my process.

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  5. I much prefer second drafts to first drafts. All of my best books had been rewritten at least once (Although the book I'm currently rewriting ... is on its ... sixth round?) I used to try to edit the first drafts, and while it does FEEL more efficient to do that, I'm a two-draft writer. One to blaze the trail and find out who the characters are, and one to make it perfect.

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    1. Yes! With that first draft, it's like I'm discovering the story as I write it. And sometimes I'm discovering what the story ISN'T.

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  6. Great post! It's really, really important to remember that your first draft is NOT going to be the one the publisher eventually sees--so it doesn't have to be great. It just has to be . . . well, a "first draft" :-)

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    1. My husband and I have an agreement that if I die in the midst of a first draft, he will just delete it from my hard drive :)

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    2. Totally :-)

      I promised myself a long time ago that I won't leave ANY unfinished fictional works behind me when I die. If I have any incomplete stories left when I'm really old, I'll just get rid of them. 'Cause we all know what happens to authors' unfinished works. People publish them. And then THE WHOLE WORLD GETS TO READ THAT AWFUL FIRST DRAFT. Now, I ask you, is that fair??? No. It's not.

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  7. Thanks for your post, Stephanie. I have been trying to find my own way of writing but feel that I have so much to learn first. I guess the most important is to jump in and see what happens. Editing does not scare me. Not have enough story to contine through to the end. Does that make sense?

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  8. Thanks for your post, Stephanie. I have been trying to find my own way of writing but feel that I have so much to learn first. I guess the most important is to jump in and see what happens. Editing does not scare me. Not have enough story to contine through to the end. Does that make sense?

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    1. It does make sense. My early stories often came in much shorter than I had hoped. I found that as I kept writing novels, I learned how to tell longer and more complex stories. I think the same will be true for you too!

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  9. This is such comforting advice - it gives me hope for all the stories I've started, "finished," and now look back on in discouragement at all the plot holes and underdeveloped characters and sections of sloppy prose. At the same time, it's really challenging advice, because it means there's a lot more to writing a book than just the first draft! :) Thanks so much for this great post - and all the great Go Teen Writers posts, for that matter. :)

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    1. I'm glad you liked it, Lucy! Yes, for a long time finishing the first draft felt like a huge accomplishment. Which it is, especially early on when you're still figuring out how to push all the way through a book. I still celebrate when I finish a first draft, but in the back of my mind, there's a voice saying, "And now for the really hard work..."

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  10. I just love this series! Very interesting article :)

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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  11. Thanks for this!! That's so true. I am always looking at my first draft and thinking, "Gosh! That's horrible!" And then the next day I think it's perfect. And then the next day I hate it . . . you get the idea. I have to remember: a first draft is never perfect!!

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    1. I totally get that. My first drafts feel like amazing stories when I'm writing them. After I've had my break and I've done my first read-through, I'm like, "Oh, gosh, this is awful!"

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    2. I know! I'm glad I'm not the only one :)

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    3. My best writer friend once told me, "It's the concept that counts." Because when you're dealing with first drafts, you're still working out your relationship and perspective and stuff, but the idea you fell for is always there (however deep its been buried). Having swinging feelings is a good sign because it means you can still see the spark you started with, even if it's gotten buried by a first draft landslide.

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    4. Well it's good to know that they're a good sign!! :)

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  12. I reached a point not long ago where I had been studying writing and doing it for about two years, and I was frustrated. All my favorite books are by old authors: Kipling, Conan Doyle, Orczy, Tolkien, Stevenson, etc. I started wondering, How did THEY do it? They didn't have character sheets, rules, and plot charts, but they wrote books above and beyond the quality of most books today. I realized they studied the world around them- they didn't 'invent' characters, they studied real people and incorporated what they learned about mankind into their books.

    I know I had heard 'keep your eyes open' as writing advice before, but I feel that piece of advice is greatly understated. In my experience, that is the most important piece for writing. When I stopped trying to meet the expectations of the writing tips and advice and started writing with the force of my personal observations and the study of older classics, I found my voice and started liking my own writing. Which never happens.

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    1. Just to be clear, I don't mean anyone should throw writing advice out the window. Go Teen Writers is awesome. I just think the one side isn't emphasized enough, and if anyone is like me, you start to think that advice is RULES, which it isn't.

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    2. That makes total sense, Savannah. I'm so glad you shared! About 10 years ago, I had lunch with a writer friend who I had just met. We were both early in our careers, and she had just been on a big kick of conferences, writing groups, and writing books. She said she thought she might be at a place where she was "too educated." That stuck with me all these years because I think it's easy to get so focused on all the writing "rules" that you get paralyzed.

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    3. Thank you for sharing, this is an awesome piece of advice to keep in mind!

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  13. The writing advice I hear most often is to turn cliches upside down. Like make the black-cloaked assassins honorable heroes.

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    1. Which is easy advice to hand out, but very difficult to do!

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    2. Very difficult, but it's very important advice to follow considering a lot of clichés and tropes (not all but when I started looking into it *shudders*) are based of unjust social standards within our culture. And you don't have to necessarily flip it on its head, sometimes you just need a new take.
      Example: A girl disguises herself a boy to go through the streets. (this is a really fun thing to do, but its been done a lot)
      Flip: A guy disguises himself as a girl.
      Different take: A girl who has disguised herself as a boy is forced to "disguise" herself as a girl to keep her cover with people who think she is a boy.

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    3. I LOVE flipping clichés upside down. It's one of my favorite things about writing.

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  14. The best writing advice I've ever received is to not be afraid to write poorly. What matters is to get something, anything, down on paper. Fixing it up can always happen later.

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    1. Yep, you can't make much progress with a blank page!

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  15. I think some of the best writing advice I ever heard and something that improved my writing almost immediately once I understood it is to write with active verbs. Like, instead of "I was hungry" say "My stomach growled with hunger" That's something that applies to all writing, not just writing a book. I had heard that advice on writing blogs before, but I actually learned that advice in my basic composition class. I had written my first paper and I thought I did pretty well, but then my teacher talked about the difference between dead verbs and active verbs and it just clicked. I rewrote my paper and my writing had improved drastically just from that piece of advice.

    http://morethanafantasyblog.blogspot.com

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    1. YES! Me too. I was almost rejected by an agent once because of my tendency to write passive sentences.

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  16. Great post! That is interesting about the Pixar movies and so right about just letting drafts sit for a while so you can see the story with fresh eyes. I am reading The History of The Lord of the Rings - fascinating to see the creative process at work, how the plot evolved from the first drafts to the final version. Some things are wildly different with reactions from 'Thank God it didn't happen that way' to 'That's too bad he didn't keep that in' and everything in between. Definitely the final version was so much better than the first ones as is the case for us all. Thanks for writing this!

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie :)

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    1. It's always so fun to learn about the evolution of stories you love :)

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  17. Stephanie, this article has stuck with me as an encouragement for days ever since you wrote it. I've been struggling with how my writing process doesn't fit neatly into the outline I tried to create. But reading your article, and analyzing the first and second book I've written, I think my writing process (rewriting large portions and exploring things along the way) is very similar to yours. It reassured me to know that it's a perfectly acceptable way to write. Thank-you so much for sharing!

    ~Schuyler

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